Explore a selection of treasures that have been donated to the University over the four centuries since a gift of books in 1580 founded the library.
The University houses internationally important museum collections, spanning everything from art works and books to musical instruments and meteorites. The University actively acquires items for its collections for the purposes of teaching, research and public engagement, and it also receives regular donations. Gifted items are among the highlights of the University’s museums, not just because they are among the most spectacular and rare items, but sometimes because of their role in the history of the University and the story of how they arrived in its possession. Here we highlight just nine donated artefacts that epitomise the variety of intriguing objects that can be found under the roofs of the University’s museums.
1. Head V by Peter Howson, donated 2016
This pastel work is by the Scottish artist Peter Howson, a leading figurative artist best known for works depicting working class men and inspired by life on the streets of Glasgow, where he grew up.
‘Head V’ is part of the John Munro Collection, the most recent addition to the University’s Art Collection. It was bequeathed by Dr John Munro (1933–2013), who graduated MBChB from Edinburgh in 1960 and had a long and successful medical career.
Munro loved art and amassed a large collection that included some of the most respected names in 20th century Scottish art.
John and his wife Jeanie often collected from art college degree shows to offer opportunities for emerging Scottish artists, and even allowed young artists to use the attic of their home as a studio.
2. Grapes of Wrath first edition, donated 2015
A collection of John Steinbeck material, consisting of almost 150 items, including first, early and significant editions of his work, reprinted editions and biographical and bibliographical works, was donated to the University’s USA Development Trust by alumnus Robert P Gray in 2015, and is on loan to the Library.
Highlights include a copy of the first edition of Steinbeck’s first novel ‘Cup of Gold’, with the dustwrapper, published shortly before the American stockmarket crash of 1929, and first editions of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘East of Eden’.
Bob Gray, a leading figure in the California agriculture sector, served for 15 years on the San Francisco regional Selection Committee of the Marshall Scholarship programme, under which the UK funds up to 40 US graduates each year to study at a UK university of their choice.
Bob was a Marshall Scholar himself for his MA in English Language and Literature at the University of Edinburgh.
3. Heiskell Darwin Collection, donated 2012
In 2012 the University received a donation of works by and about Charles Darwin from the Heiskell Bibliographical Foundation.
This includes some great rarities in excellent condition, including two fine copies of the first edition of On the Origin of Species (1859).
The University already possessed a number of important early editions, so now has a collection of more than 100 volumes of lifetime editions of Darwin’s works.
The photograph of Charles Darwin, and a reproduction of his signature, is found in the frontispiece of A Century of Family Letters 1792-1896, published in New York in 1915, edited by Henrietta Emma Darwin, the fourth child of Charles and Emma Darwin.
The collection was that of Charles L Heiskell, MD, from California, who died in in 2006.
It was given to the University by his daughter, who was seeking an appropriate home for the collection after his death.
4. Hass clavichord, donated 1964
A clavichord made by Johann Hass of Hamburg in 1763 forms part of the Raymond Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments, donated in 1964.
The clavichord is highly decorated using rare and expensive materials, many of which would be illegal to use today.
The keyboard is covered in tortoiseshell for the naturals (the normally ‘white’ keys), veneered over gold leaf for extra warmth and depth, and the sharp keys are topped with mother-of-pearl.
The fronts of the keys are covered with ivory. Other materials used include kingwood, an especially valuable type of Brazilian rosewood, and vermilion, an expensive and highly toxic pigment. The interior of the lid has a landscape painting.
Raymond Russell (1922-1964) was a collector of early keyboard instruments and an accomplished player. The collection of 21 instruments is one of the world’s most important collections of its type.
5. Imilac meteorite, donated 1931
This Imilac meteorite, which landed in Ireland in the 1840s, is part of the Currie Collection, donated to the University of Edinburgh in 1931.
The meteorite is a stony-iron pallasite: part iron and part magnesium iron silicate. Much of the greenish silicate was burned away during its arrival on Earth, but the cross-section cut reveals this ‘olivine’ inside the meteorite.
The Currie Collection consists of around 5,000 mineral specimens, including 25 meteorites. It was donated to the University by the wife of Dr James Currie in 1931.
Currie was a former student at the University, and in 1919 he was awarded an honorary doctorate. He was Vice-President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, President of the Edinburgh Geological Society and a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
Currie ran the Leith-based shipping line, J Currie & Co, and his travels enabled him to collect and buy rare mineral specimens from all over the world.
6. Anatomical Figure of a Horse (1585), donated 1836
This outstanding sculpture by the Flemish artist Giovanni Bologna (“Giambologna”, born Jean Boulogne), made in 1585, is a highlight of the University’s prestigious Torrie Collection.
The horse is an écorché, showing the muscles of the animal in detail. The work indicates scientific as well as artistic intention, and the influence of Leonardo da Vinci.
Sir James Erskine, third Baronet of Torrie, was an accomplished soldier who served with Wellington. It was common for high-ranking military officers at that time to collect works of art, and Erskine built a fine collection for his London residence during the early 19th century.
He bequeathed his collection to the University upon his death in 1826, a decision possibly influenced by his connections with William Playfair.
The collection, of 79 pieces including many 17th century Dutch paintings, is an important teaching resource and focus of research. Works from the collection have been exhibited around the world, and are regularly on show in the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery.
7. Wax cast of a heart, donated 1798
A wax cast of a “heart of a young person”, made in the early 18th century, is part of the donation that founded the University’s Anatomical Museum in 1798.
The heart would have been used to teach anatomy in the early 18th century. In the days before preserving fluids and the ability to freeze specimens, organs such as this were injected with wax.
In this case, the wax was probably injected through the blood vessels, then the heart tissue chemically corroded to leave a perfect 3D cast of the organ.
The heart is part of the donation by Alexander Monro secundus, Professor of Anatomy 1754-1798. He presented to the University his own collection of anatomical preparations, with that of his father Alexander Monro primus (Professor of Anatomy 1720-1754).
The collections reflect a time when Edinburgh established itself as one of the leading places in the world to study anatomy and medicine.
8. The foundation bequest, 1580
A large vellum charter dated 14 October 1580 records delivery of 276 books bequeathed by Clement Litill to the Toun and Kirk of Edinburgh.
This collection, a catalogue of which is included in the document, were the first books in the University Library.
The books cover both Catholic and Protestant theology and humanist scholarship, and include outstanding individual items such as the unique copy of the Sarum breviary printed at Rouen in 1496, and the first book printed at St Andrews in 1552.
Clement Litill (c1527-1580) was an advocate and commissary of Edinburgh.
The younger son of an Edinburgh merchant and burgess, he was educated at the University of St Andrews and at Louvain, eventually returning to Edinburgh in 1550 to practise as a lawyer.
His collection was handed by the Town Council, of which Clement’s brother William was a member, to the Tounis College in 1584, the year after students were first admitted.